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The ‘Beautiful People’ of James Van Der Zee

Article relating to an individual, 1970
Published by: Ebony magazine
Year published: 1970
Number of pages: 7

image of The ‘Beautiful People’ of James Van Der Zee

The Beautiful People of James Van Der Zee | Veteran photographer captures 70 years of black life. Major feature in October 1970 issue of the legendary African American magazine, Ebony. The profusely illustrated article appeared in the Personalities section of the magazine. The feature opens with a large portrait of Van Der Zee with camera, though it’s not stated whether this is a self-portrait. Similarly, the accompanying text is not credited. The text accompanying the portrait states: “Still a pro with camera and tripod, 87-year-old James Van DerZee (sic) reflects on a lifetime of taking pictures. Artist, shown in his New York apartment, began shooting in 1900, has compiled some 50,000 prints. Many are included in recently published book, The World of James Van DerZee.”

The article includes 23 reproductions of the photographer’s work, including his iconic photograph of Marcus Garvey (plus two photographs of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association’s auxillary corps). Accompanying text for these images: As official photographer of Marcus Garvey (above in plumed admiral’s hat), Van DerZee created the most extensive collection of photos depicting the separatist movement. Two photos below capture the movement’s paramilitary pomp and circumstance.”

The feature is particularly revealing, as it gives an insight into the personal and career highs and lows of one of America’s great photographers of the 20th century. Extract as follows: “Yet the artist may well have died unknown had it not been for a series of singular events. In 1967 [Reginald] McGhee, a black photographer, was conducting research for an exhibit “Harlem on My Mind.” He found Van DerZee in a Harlem studio along with possibly as many as 50,000 negatives. “It was amazing they had been kept in such condition,” McGhee recalls. Van DerZee thus became the exhibit’s principal contributor. But real fame awaited a tragedy of sorts, part of a life of bad luck that has haunted the photographer.

     Van DerZee and his wife, Gaynell, were evicted from their longtime home in Harlem. (They had purchased the house but later lost possession on a mortgage forclosure.) On the day of the eviction, the New York Times carried a picture story showwing the saddened photographer in front of the home. Aroused friends found lodgings for the couple; but more importantly, publishers with an eye for black subject matter suddenly became aware of the photographer’s existence.”


Related people

»  James VanDerZee

Born, 1886. Died, 1983